Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reading? Rest in Peace

This past decade has given us many new devices to make communication between people faster and easier. Walk into any electronics store or browse online and there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of these time savers for sale. Where once computerized communication devices were the purview of adults, mostly those in the work world, these devices are now seen in use everywhere by everyone. Yes, even three-year-olds know how to turn on a computer or fool around with a cell phone or PDA. And virtually everywhere you will hear people applauding the success of these devices, you will hear them lauding all the benefits of the devices.

Well, let me be one to take the opposite stand: these devices have caused us, as a nation and as a world, to lose something very precious. We are no longer readers. But wait you say, you have to read to use these devices. Well, you have to scan letters, I'll grant you that, but reading? Nope.

Educators from nursery to post-college are all bemoaning the fact that students' reading skills have dropped, and with that drop in reading skills, their writing skills have also deteriorated. Many an employer has pointed a finger at the poor job that schools are doing in educating their students, evidenced by the poor reading, writing and speaking skills of those who apply for jobs and/or who are in the work place. Employers are pointing a finger at the wrong place in attempting to place all the blame on the schools. The blame can be squarely placed on the general society that is involved in a hot and heavy love affair with technology, with communication devices.

How do people develop solid or stellar communication skills? One way is by observing others, listening to how they speak and copying their inflections, vocabulary and speaking style. Yet another way is to be taught the basics of English grammar and syntax, to be taught vocabulary, to be given practice in writing across many different subject areas. But perhaps the best way to become an excellent writer is to be a reader.

Why is reading books an excellent developmental tool for the skill of writing? In reading well-written material from a variety of print sources a person is exposed to the patterns, cadences and usages of standard English. They are exposed to a diverse vocabulary and how that vocabulary is used. There is a patterning that takes place when someone reads, a patterning that can be used when that person writes.

The English that appears in the writings on most of the electronic devices we use for communication is a truncated form of English, more patois or jargon than standard English. The purpose of this jargon is a simple one: give information using the fewest number of words (or letters) possible, reducing the amount of time spent in communicating. Everything connected with these devices is about short and quick.

But not everything that people might have to write in the academic and business worlds is going to be about shortness or quickness. There are still a multitude of situations where in- depth analysis and critical thinking skills are necessary. There are still a multitude of situations where being able to write flowing English, with all its complexities, is required. And to write that more complex English, reading is a key tool.

There is no reason to be a Luddite and decry that all those electronic devices be banished so we can return to a "better" way of doing things. What we do need to do, however, is recognize that those devices are only a few of the ways that we need to communicate with each other, and that the approaches that are useful when using those devices are not correct or useful in other writing situations. And yes, we need to once again stress the reading of books as a necessary tool for an educated person.

Let's be honest here--when an occasion arises to give a gift to a young person (and yes, to an adult as well) is your first thought to head to a bookstore, or is it to head to an electronics store or toy store? As a society we have come to value those electronics more than the printed word as found in books, and therein lies a ticking time bomb. Those who still read, and who reap the benefit of that reading as seen in their writing, are going to be the cream that rises to the top. The rest are going to be literal skim milk.

Like the ubiquitous fast-food meals so many rely on, those "fast-reading" devices aren't going to deliver any "nutritional" benefits to the readers who use them. Keep them in their place, as one type of tool that is available today. But bring back the reading of books for the much more "nutritious" benefits that they can give us, as readers, as writers and as educated communicators.


Anonymous said...

I agree. I am really struck by the deterioration of writing skills when I read history books that include lengthy excerpts of letters written by generations past. I am taken with the eloquence and creativity whether its the letters between John and Abigail Adams (who we would expect to have superior language skills, although it is worth noting that Abigail did not have the benefit of any higher education but her letters are every bit as impressive as those of her husband) to the letters home from revolutionary war, civil war and wwI and WWII soldiers, many of whom also probably had no college education and likely not even a full k-12. If history judges us by our emails, tweets and instant messages (and even by many blogs and blog comments), then we will be sorely lacking in comparison. While we do tend to see only a sampling of history's finest, I do wonder if anyone today could come up with phrases like "with malice towards none and charity towards all," or "a day that will live in infamy" or even "in order to form a more perfect union."

Anonymous said...

ProfK: I am one of those who does like to give books as gifts to young people. The problem I face is when giving gifts to children of more RW jews is fear that the parents might find something in the book objectionable, like pigs or piglets in some of the great classics Charlotte's Web and Winnie the Pooh. At the book store, I freeze in panic when trying to remember if there might be something vaguely objectionable in Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown. Forget about books for adolescents and older kids. Kurt Vonnegut and Jane Austin were among my favorites as a young teen, but I know those are not safe for the more orthodox. You and your readers could do a great service by putting together a list of "safe" gift books for readers from ages 2 to 16.

Abba's Rantings said...


Rae said...

Agree that society is not putting enough emphasis on reading and writing on a high level but the schools don't get away with a pass. I know how many book reports on outside books they had to write and how many classroom required books my children had to read during the school year, not to mention the required summer reading. I see what my grandchildren's schools are requiring, and it's less. When the schools cave in the parents have no incentive to make up the slack.

JS said...

Oh boy. I'm not even sure where to begin.

To be clear, I agree with your general premise; namely, that technology, and the entertainment value derived from this technology, has made reading passe and boring in comparison. However, I think the issue is far more complicated and far more serious than you have indicated.

I think the two parties that share the blame are the parents and the schools. The parents are to blame for providing these devices, not setting proper limits on their use, and not establishing time that must be spent "off line" reading. The schools are to blame for not providing the framework and skills necessary for high-level communication in the English language.

One of a parent's jobs is to set proper limits for his/her child and guide the child's development. Part of that development is language skills. If the parent is content to let his/her child play with Facebook, blogs, texting, and IMs all day and never pick up a book, the resulting language problems are not surprising. Further, the parent needs to supplement what should be taught in the schools by reviewing homework assignments and working on skills the child needs to further develop.

The schools must educate the children to excel in the use of the English language. This includes proper spelling and grammar as well as an advanced vocabulary. Beyond this, schools need to teach how to understand complicated materials and how to present, on paper, complex ideas. It is not enough to learn how to write a grammatically correct sentence if the paragraph that results from those strung-together sentences is vapid, unclear, obtuse, or uninteresting.

I believe schools are not doing enough in this department. Especially at the younger grades, the focus seems to be more on arts and crafts projects than developing language skills. For example, book reports focus more on creating a diorama than on creating a well-crafted report on the book.

Beyond this, there are other problems. With more and more people going to colleges and graduate schools of questionable quality, it is not surprising that employers are surprised by the lack of skilled graduates in the interview pool. Perhaps it is not the place of colleges and graduate schools to work on students' language skills, but someone needs to stem the tide. Either they need to provide workshops for these skills, or they need to stop accepting those who lack them (and degrade the worth of the resulting degree).

Another issue I have is that countless millions of Americans use computers, cell phones, smart phones, etc. on any given day yet the number who understand, at even a rudimentary level, how these devices work is frighteningly small. As the fields of computing and telecommunications continue to expand, the number of people who grasp the concepts integral to these fields continue to shrink.

Finally, although the problems are ubiquitous throughout society, to bring the problem back home to our own communities, secular education is often denigrated even in the most "modern" of Modern Orthodox communities. As an example, the alumni newsletter I recently received from my Modern Orthodox high school contained maybe 2-3 pages on the school's secular achievements and about 27-30 on the school's religious achievements. This is a significant problem in our schools, shuls, and homes where secular education is always placed below religious education. For example, what can be expected when we structure our schools so our children get home very late and barely have time to do homework before bed let alone read, our schools and shuls say secular reading is inappropriate for Shabbat, and Sundays must be spent on homework?

Abba's Rantings said...


" I see what my grandchildren's schools are requiring, and it's less."

my first grader just started a new school and he his daily homework includes 20 minutes of reading from any book of his or our choice. i have no idea if this is enough. but it isn't nothing.


" the number who understand, at even a rudimentary level, how these devices work is frighteningly small."

i am amazed that when growing up my father could fix anything, yet i can fix almost nothing. this is due in large part to different skills/talents, but also to the fact that today the nitty gritty of how many things work are beyond the abilty of most people to grasp.

"the focus seems to be more on arts and crafts projects . . ."

that's just where modern pedagogy has headed. you better get used to it. just last night i went to a meeting at school where some parents were complaining that there is too much emphasis on music and culture when teaching second languages. the language director responded with all this fluff about how kids learn through different modalities, including music, art, etc.

same thing when i complained that my son's talmud torah is not rigorous enough and there is too much fluff. "well contemporary educational theory believes that . . ."

i'm not an educator and these guys could all be correct. but is just seems so strange to me.

JS said...

"...but also to the fact that today the nitty gritty of how many things work are beyond the abilty of most people to grasp."

I disagree. I am convinced that the vast majority of people can understand how the technology works if taught properly. Maybe some could not advance beyond a low-level understanding, but even this would be an improvement over the current state of affairs. I believe that people are not given the tools to understand the technology in the schools and therefore this technology seems inscrutable and incomprehensible. The kind of logical thinking and problem solving necessary for engineering would be a great boon even to those who won't get within 100 yards of a soldering iron. If schools taught how to analyze and compartmentalize problems and how to solve these problems using a hierarchical approach, not only would people have the tools to understand technology, but they would also have sharper critical thinking skills.

Currently, given the lack of education, it's like asking someone who barely knows the alphabet or how to sound out letters to pronounce onomatopoeia.

Abba's Rantings said...


i alsmost completed computer science degree in college. mostly did programming classes. i didn't like it, in part because i never really understood what was going on inside the computer. until i took a course in assembly language. it was frustrating, but for the first time i had an idea of what was going on inside the computer. but you really want people to thing in hexademical. or perhaps in binary machine language?

i really think that in large part a motivation in the past for understanding how things work was so they can fix them. but i can't fix my iphone if it breaks, so who cares how it works?

Lissa said...

I think JS you are mixing up how things work with what things can do, and you don't necessarily need to know one to know the other. The how, as Abba said above, is the physical and I don't need to know the physical inside workings to be able to use my technology well. I'm not going to be fixing the inside of my computer if it breaks, or of any of the other machinery and technology that I own. There is simply too much of that technology in our lives for it to pay to try and learn about each and every one of the things we use and how they work. It wouldn't be possible no matter how much you studied.

The what is a different story but even there it depends on what it is I want to do with that technology. If I am not in the field of computers I don't even really need to know all the things a computer can do and I don't need to know every little bit of information that is outside of what I want or need to do on the computer. I don't need to know how a computer connects to the Internet and the philosophy/technology behind how that connection gets made in order to use the Internet.

Expanding your point, why stop with requiring everyone to have basic engineering and computing knowledge? You could just as easily argue that everyone has to have an equally broad education in chemistry and biology because you shouldn't be allowed to take medications or eat things without knowing precisely how many therms the body will or won't use in metabolizing what we are eating or the exact possibilities for internal reactions if certain drugs are taken under certain circumstances.

You can't ask people to become experts in everything, not even low level experts. Our world is too complex for that.

JS said...


I'm not mixing anything up. You're misunderstanding my point. I said above that the vast majority of Americans can use technology, however only a few can explain in even simple terms how that technology works. For example, most people are whizzes at texting on a cell phone, but how many can explain what the "cell" in cell phone means let alone how a text gets from your phone to the recipient's phone.

You're confusing 3 different skill sets: 1) using technology; 2) fixing technology; and 3) understanding technology. I've already dealt with #1, I don't think this is a huge problem - most people can use a phone or computer, for example. I also think #2 is a useful skill in certain instances, but is often not worth the time or effort given the low cost of technology and the fact that modern manufacturing methods often make it impossible or impractical to fix yourself.

I am arguing that understanding technology (and yes, I include ALL areas of technology such as electronics, telecommunications, medicine, chemistry, physics, etc), is important for its own sake even if it doesn't help a person use the technology better or fix it. Addressing a question like this is like responding to a person who asks why we need to know history if it already happened and was so long ago.

This understanding should be part of every educated person's knowledge base. Again, not for purely practical reasons but because it makes you a more well-rounded person and helps you understand the world around you. Beyond that though, understanding how these systems work and the thought process that is behind identifying and solving technological problems aids in critical thinking and logic skills. Further, technology is not some arcane art. Cell phones don't work by "magic". They are human endeavors which are scrutable. Understanding this would have immeasurable benefits to society - especially as the pace of technology continues to grow exponentially.

It should be unacceptable in society to be so willfully ignorant of such an important part of our daily lives. It should be unacceptable to laughingly reply that only nerds or geeks understand that or that such knowledge is only for people with a "head" for such things. We look disdainfully at a person who can't formulate a grammatically correct sentence or never heard of Mark Twain or has no idea what the Declaration of Independence says or what the Civil War was fought over, but it's completely acceptable to have not even the slightest idea of how a computer works or what an algorithm is.

Our perceptions of what it means to be "educated" need to change and we need to change our schools systems to meet this new definition.

Anonymous said...

Visiting the library was a weekly ritual in our home when I was growing up. We went as a family, and everyone left with weekly reading material. I saw that my parents read before retiring for the evening and as a child evening bedtime stories were also a ritual. When I was finally old enough to read to my younger brothers I got to choose the evening story, under the watchful eye of my parents.
How many parents today actively enjoy participatory reading with their family? Maybe reading will not fall by the wayside if parents actively strive to include it in the basic structure of daily family life.

Anonymous said...

JS: I think the problem is not so much that people don't understand technology and science and biology, etc. its that those who do have the expertise are often not good at communicating it in clear, plain, well-organized language. For example, have you ever tried reading a user's manual for your cell phone, or even your toaster? I also agree that its too bad that people don't get their hands dirty taking things apart and fixing them. Unfotunately, so many things that handy people used to be able to tinker with and fix now are either disposable or require a specialist because of computer chips in everything, etc. You can't change your own oil any more because of the disposal issues.

Libertarian said...

As usual, more complaints about the deterioration of the younger generation and the current state of things compared to the halcyon days of your youth. This sort of complaining has been popular since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, not to mention the Mishna. It's probably a hard-wired human habit.

Just an offhand reply to Anonymous #1:

Innumeracy is as bad or worse than illiteracy. Do you know what a biased sample is? Of course the great statesmen of the past were capable of impressive oratory, as are the statesmen of today.

I completely disagree regarding letters sent home by soldiers of the past. Most of the ones which I have seen are strongly lacking in proper spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Conversely, I have seen letters from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan which are very well-written.

Abba's Rantings said...


"The schools must educate the children to excel in the use of the English language. This includes proper spelling"

you'd love my son's school. i just came home from curriculum night at his school. apparently they don't believe in teaching spelling. on principle. there are no spelling tests. teachers don't look to correct spelling mistakes in homework and other assignments, etc.

on the other hand it seems that they take reading very seriously.

ProfK said...


Re your statement "As usual, more complaints about the deterioration of the younger generation and the current state of things compared to the halcyon days of your youth. This sort of complaining has been popular since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, not to mention the Mishna. It's probably a hard-wired human habit," just because this practice is 'ancient' doesn't mean that there is no truth or validity to it.

Were generations going forward never to look back at the generations preceding them we'd be in the position of inventing the wheel anew with each generation. To build on the successes of a preceding generation, and to avoid its mistakes, you need to look at its practices carefully to determine which of those practices were vital for forward movement and which were idiosyncratic to a time and place and circumstances which don't apply elsewhere.

Reading well is one of those practices which should be carried forward and is not being done on a level where its usefulness can be fully utilized. The current generation is, in large measure, looking to replace reading with the sub par English required in texting. It should not be an either or situation.

Halcyon days of my youth? Surely you jest. Not everyone in my youth was living a "Donna Reed" life. Yes, there are fond memories but I surely don't wish upon my kids or any kids living today the "joy" of being drugged, bundled up and escaping across the border one step ahead of the invading Russians. I certainly don't wish for them the joys of life in a DP camp, or of being an immigrant to a new and very strange land where fitting in was going to take time, lots and lots of time, and it wouldn't always happen. Were there some things that were "better" back then? Undoubtedly. And a lot of things that were worse.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps my el-hi public education several decades ago was unusually poor, but I actually am very favorably impressed with what students are being taught in public schools these days and the quality of the students coming out of those schools -- at least what I see in neighbors' and colleagues' kids in a variety of middle class areas. I am seeing a lot of well-spoken, well-written and well-read young people who would have blown away anyone from my high school. A lot of it may have to do with the parents, not just the schools. These are parents who read the NY Times with their kids, are regular readers themselves and much of their Monday-morning water cooler talk is about the NY Times Sunday Review of Books. Sure these kids text and tweet and read books on kindles. My point is that in any generation, there will be those lacking certain skills and those with more advanced skills, but I think that on the whole, things are not getting worse and might even be getting better.

Anonymous said...

I think a far worse threat to analytical skills is what people listen to on talk radio and watch on certain tv news and read on certain blogs. I'm talking about statements like "Hitler was nice to his dog, Obama is nice to his dog, therefore Obama is Hitler," that pass for reasoned analysis and logic and have become so common.